Parenting: Picture Books

David Murphy's picture book experience probably started with Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag.
January 17, 2011 4:15:00 PM PST
Children's picture books are losing popularity, David Murphy has learned, which is not good.

I have very specific memories of reading and being read to as a child. Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag (which has enjoyed almost as many lives as a lucky cat since first hitting store shelves in 1928) was one of my favorites, and my wife and I made sure to include it among the picture books we read to our kids. It saddens me (and hopefully saddens you, too) to learn that in the last few years, picture books are becoming more rare. Scholastic, among other publishers, report a five to ten percent drop in the number of picture book titles being released. And while old standbys like Dr. Seuss are still plentiful and enjoy healthy sales, new titles are lagging. Picture book sales are also slipping. Pundits say a poor economy is partly to blame, but they also cite the desire of some parents to move their preschoolers toward chapter books sooner.

Some of these books, like E.B. White's Stuart Little, are great works of children's literature. Some more recent titles written around films or other facets of popular culture are arguably not. But regardless of the material, the fact that traditional children's picture books are losing ground bothers me. So, I decided to look into it.

Asking the Experts

Two developmental child psychologists were consulted. Not surprisingly (to me, anyway), both Roberta Golinkoff of the University of Delaware and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek of Temple University are dismayed by this development, too. "Parents want to push their children", Professor Hirsh-Pasek says, "and they're pushing them so hard that they want to read chapter books before they're ready. Old, wonderful stables like Goodnight Moon and Pat the Bunny, they're now sitting on the shelves gathering dust." The problem here is that some parents, in an understandable and very "new-millennium" drive to give their kids an advantage heading into the school years, may be making improper assumptions about what actually works best. Hirsh-Pasek cites a study done in New Zealand that attempted to measure whether preschoolers who read chapter books (the kind with lots of words and few pictures) did better once they reached grade school than children who had been exposed only to traditional picture books (the kind that are lighter on words, but heavy on descriptive artwork). The findings? There was no perceivable advantage.

In fact, Professor Golinkoff believes that something is lost in the absence of picture books. "We know that for three-year-olds, they learn from picture books and they can follow the characters. They can follow the story line." Golinkoff and Hirsh-Pasek agree that picture books are more likely to spark questions in young children and conversations about what they and their parents are reading. There's a term for this: dialogic reading. The psychologists say it "helps our children learn about words and stories, and builds literacy."

Unplugging

Golinkoff is also not a fan of electronic reading toys. Despite the bells, whistles, and other funny noises some these devices make, she says a child will be far better off sitting in a parent's lap and following along to The Velveteen Rabbit, than punching buttons that make sounds which are often not even connected to the characters in the story.

Neither Golinkoff nor Hirsh-Pasek believe chapter books are bad. On the contrary, if a younger child shows an interest in stepping-up to a higher level of reading at age three, four or five, a parent should absolutely support this. But they say the premise that kids will automatically benefit from moving to more mature books early on is problematic. In fact, they fear that some kids may actually be turned off to reading in general, if forced to go in over their heads. A big key, no matter what your child's preference, is parents actually taking the time to read books with their kids. This does help learning and reading skills, without question. Furthermore, Golinkoff says, interruptions should not only be tolerated while reading to kids, but encouraged. "Reading time is not the time for teaching manners." Reading, she says, should ideally lead to conversations between parent and child, even in mid-story---and especially if it involves relating the material to a child's life experience. If there's a pet in a story, talk about a child's own pet. If there's a truck, ask the child if they've ever seen a truck. This makes the reading more fun, but also relevant, which will make them want to come back for more.

Read, Repeat

Also, if your child wants to read the same book over and over, oblige them. The psychologists explain that a child's world can be tumultuous with lots of new experiences and stimuli. Sometimes, this can be upsetting. The constant of a familiar book is often soothing, satisfying and highly beneficial. So is the simple act of cuddling up with mom or dad, which is understandable to anyone who has even a vague recollection of doing the same thing with one's own parents.

A young child's life should definitely include books. Parents definitely need to read to their children. But according to our experts, don't worry about rushing kids into books that are over their heads. More important is whether they're enjoying the reading experience and being treated to it regularly.

---David Murphy

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